by Dr Venkatesh Sundaram, 13 May 2019
Hundreds of activists, men and women, staged vigorous protests outside the Supreme Court of India on Tuesday 7th May 2019. They were protesting against the “clean chit” given to the Chief Justice of India by an “in-house panel” set up by the authorities to inquire into allegations of sexual harassment levelled against the CJI by a former staff member of the Court. Protests are also being organised in various cities across India, including Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad, as we go to the press.
In the third week of April 2019, a former woman employee of the Supreme Court had accused the sitting Chief Justice of India, Mr Ranjan Gogoi, of making unwanted sexual advances and later, victimising her and her family when she resisted them. Her sworn affidavit containing these allegations was sent to all the other 22 judges of the Supreme Court.
In the months before he was appointed as CJI, Mr Gogoi is said to have taken a special interest in the woman’s personal and professional life, and ensured that she was transferred to his residential office. Two of the incidents of molestation described by her took place in October 2018, soon after Mr Gogoi was appointed as the CJI. When she resisted, she was transferred thrice to different sections within the Supreme Court. At the end of November 2018, disciplinary proceedings were initiated against her, and she was finally dismissed on 21st December 2018. By late December, her husband and his brother, who worked with the Delhi Police, were also suspended from their respective jobs. They were also arrested and tortured in police custody!
The response of the judiciary and the ruling establishment to these serious charges made by a woman employee of the highest court of the land was shocking, to say the least.
Within hours of the allegations being made public, a Special Bench comprising the CJI himself and two other judges was constituted for holding a special hearing “to deal with a matter of great public importance touching upon the independence of the judiciary”, on Saturday (a day when the Supreme Court does not normally have hearings) 20th of April ’19. By organising this hearing, the CJI not only quite obviously misused his power as “master of the roster” (i.e. deciding who would be the members of a particular bench to look into a given matter). He also violated one of the fundamental principles of natural justice, i.e. of not being a judge in one’s own case!
At this hearing, these honourable judges and the Solicitor General of India and senior members of the Supreme Court Bar Association unilaterally proclaimed the innocence of the CJI without the victim of alleged sexual harassment being even summoned, present or heard during the proceedings! Thus, another cardinal principle of natural justice, of hearing both parties, was also violated. The top judicial establishment presented it as a case where “vested interests” who were intent on “undermining the independence of the judiciary” were slinging mud at the CJI! Similar responses were made by the Secretary General of the Supreme Court of India to media houses which asked about the allegations against the CJI.
However, people refused to buy this story and the clamour for investigation into the allegations made by the woman and justice for her started growing. To assuage this, the Supreme Court then set up an “in-house enquiry committee” to go into the allegations.
But the rules and procedure of this committee were totally loaded against the complainant. It was clear that other employees of the Supreme Court, whose careers depended on the CJI and other top officials, could hardly dare to give evidence in her support! Especially after seeing what had happened to her when she resisted the advances of the CJI. She was asked to face the committee consisting of judges of the Supreme Court and conduct the proceedings all by herself, including confronting the person who she alleged to be her tormentor, the CJI, without the assistance of any lawyer. In the circumstances, the complainant refused to participate in the “in-house proceedings”. She insisted instead on an independent outside enquiry to establish the truth.
The “in-house enquiry committee” consisting of three judges proceeded in her absence. It quickly came to the conclusion that there was no substance in her allegations, though she had provided a lot of evidence, including documents, audio and video recordings etc. Though they published their conclusion, on 6th May 2019, they have withheld the complete report of their findings till the time of publication.
The very next day, Tuesday 8th February, saw massive protests outside the Supreme Court in which hundreds of women and men participated. They condemned the travesty of justice in a case where the highest judge of the country, the CJI himself was an accused. The protestors tore through the “clean chit” of the “in-house committee” constituted by sitting judges of the Supreme Court. They demanded that not only the woman in question, but all women who are victims of sexual harassment must get justice.
The response of the authorities to the protest was swift and severe. Section 144 was clamped around the Supreme Court area and protestors were dragged into police vans – but not before they had made their points loud and clear!
Undaunted by this high-handed response, a protest was organised at Rajiv Chowk in Delhi the next day – Wednesday 8th May 2019 as well. Moreover, protests are also being organised in several cities across India.
It is clear that the Supreme Court is not delivering justice to all, without bias. The principle of equality before the law is being trampled in the mud. A privileged elite acting arbitrarily is not acceptable in this 21st century.
All progressive forces and justice loving people must support the legitimate demand that an impartial enquiry must be conducted into the charges against the CJI, by a body consisting of retired judges and well-known champions of women’s rights, following the due process.